ZAGREB (Reuters) - Croatia's main opposition party HDZ elected former spy chief Tomislav Karamarko as its leader on Monday, marking a shift back to its strongly nationalist roots and raising the political temperature in the future EU member.
The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) shed its hardline image as it ruled for 16 of the 20 years since independence, but it lost power to a centre-left bloc in December and is now on trial for corruption.
Karamarko, also a former interior minister, had campaigned on a platform of defending Croatian national interests and the dignity of veterans of the 1991 to 1995 independence war.
"The party must return to its roots and revive real patriotism," he said after defeating four other candidates, including former prime minister Jadranka Kosor, who helped put Croatia on track to join the European Union next year.
"We will finally become the real opposition," said Karamarko, 53.
A commentary in Jutarnji List daily, seen as close to the ruling centre-left coalition, described the election of Karamarko as a radical shift to the right for the opposition party.
"It has lost its liberal, and even its moderate component, and sided with the hardline European right," it said.
The HDZ was defeated in elections because of popular anger over economic stagnation and government corruption.
The party, a former prime minister and other party officials, are on trial for corruption and abuse of state funds - including rigging tenders and skimming profits from public companies for party slush funds. They have denied the accusations.
(Reporting by Zoran Radosavljevic; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)